Shaking the branch of a long-standing family tree yields a finer fruit
Photos by: Brian J. Nelson
Kawasaki has a relatively long history of producing parallel-twin sport bikes, dating back to the 1983 GPZ305. It was a lightweight entry-level bike that mimicked the then new styling of Kawasaki’s bigger GPZ sport bikes. In 1988 came the Ninja 250, which has enjoyed an unbroken production run leading right up to today’s Ninja 300. In 1994, the company introduced the EX500, which proved a very popular choice among budding riders and racers alike. It, too, enjoyed a lengthy production run before Kawasaki pulled the plug on it in 2009. It was dropped because for three years it had been competing on the Kawasaki showroom floor with the Ninja 650R, which was introduced in 2006.
The 650R offered riders an accessible, affordable sportbike option that was much more modern and more powerful, and handled better than the EX500, but with more manageable power and a more comfortable riding position than the ZX-6R supersport. The 650R also featured distinctive styling among other Ninja models, utilizing a unique steel frame with large-diameter tubing up front, a single square-section backbone in the rear and a single shock absorber offset to the right side of the bike, which became the bike’s hallmark design feature. The bike received a major overhaul halfway through its life cycle, but it retained these characteristic styling traits.
We travelled to Paso Robles, California, to ride the new Ninja 650 (Kawasaki has since dropped the R), which has been completely redesigned for 2017. And the change is radical – everything is new. About the only thing that is similar to the outgoing model, aside from the name, is the engine, though even it has seen a major revision. The 649 cc parallel-twin’s basic specs, such as bore, stroke and compression ratio, are the same as before, but the cylinders no longer have steel liners, which reduces weight and brings them closer together for a narrower engine. Within a redesigned cylinder head are new cams with slightly milder timing, and the throttle bodies are 2 mm smaller in diameter, at 36 mm. These changes combine with revised engine mapping to increase peak torque by 1.5 ft-lb to 48.5, while increasing available torque in the lower rev range. Gearbox ratios are unchanged, but the clutch is now mechanically assisted to reduce lever effort, and it incorporates a slipper function.
A Svelte Package
The frame is an all-new steel trellis design that weighs an astounding 8.6 kg less than before. And that’s not the only component that has seen a reduction in weight: the wheels, swingarm, engine and various other components are lighter than before, bringing the total weight savings to 19 kg, which is unheard of in a single model upgrade. Hard-core racers would be hard pressed to remove half that amount for the racetrack.
Steering geometry is more aggressive and much more sportbike-like, with less trail (99 vs. 110 mm) and a steeper rake angle (24 vs. 25 degrees), while the wheelbase remains at 1,410 mm. If you’re not yet convinced of just how sporty the new Ninja 650 is, take note that its chassis geometry is now almost identical to that of the ZX-6R, while wet weight, at 192 kg (426 lb), is identical to the 6R’s wet weight.
The bike’s lines are now much sharper, more angular and sportier, aligning the 650’s styling more with the company’s supersport Ninjas – much like that original GPZ305 looked like its bigger, sportier stable mates. Although the 41 mm conventional fork is retained, the 650’s trademark exposed shock absorber is gone, having moved to the centre of the frame and connected to the swingarm by linkage instead of directly. The fork has been retuned primarily to compensate for the weight reduction, while the rear suspension is more progressive through its travel, mostly due to the added linkage.
More Comfort in a Sporty Stance
The riding position has been changed for a slightly more sporting stance. The hand grips are farther forward and lower, though the foot pegs have also been moved forward and are a bit lower, while the seat height has dropped 15 mm to 790 mm, which is relatively low for a sport bike. Without a previous model on hand, it’s hard to tell what the changes actually feel like; the riding position is nonetheless much more accommodating than any supersport machine, placing you into a modest forward lean with a very easy reach to the handlebar. At six feet tall, I found the legroom a bit cramped, but Kawasaki does offer a 25 mm taller accessory gel seat, and I’d take it.
When you’re seated, the view forward reveals a neat new instrument cluster that features a prominent analogue tachometer with a digital readout to the right, and an array of warning lights to the left. The digital display has a black background and grey digits, providing an attractive, upscale appearance you’d expect on a high-end supersport machine. Display info includes gear indicator, time, coolant temperature, twin trip meters, fuel economy readout and fuel gauge. There’s also a programmable shift light that works in conjunction with the display’s backlighting, which changes hue from white to pink (at 500 rpm before the selected shift rpm) to red, when it’s time to shift. This light…